Causes

How to make a city SAFE: Understanding the human trafficking trade (part 3)

Debbie Perry-Smith and her husband, Roger, were house shopping just south of Denver one day when they found a place they both loved. It sat at the confluence of four different cities, up on a hill, and it was close to family.

But when they walked inside to check it out, they realized, “Somebody had just up and abandoned it,” Debbie says.

They started doing their own research on the property and kept hitting dead ends. They were not people who easily give up, though. The couple hired an attorney to help them figure out what was going on and find a way to buy it.

After months of investigating and prayer, the reason for the property’s abandonment and subsequent seizure by Federal authorities came to light. The story made local news as it was revealed why the property had been seized: It had belonged to a “madam” who was purchasing properties with laundered money from her illegal massage parlor businesses in the Denver area.

This did not sway Debbie and Roger, who showed up to the federal auction ready to bid against the pool of other prospective buyers. They knew that, if this was God’s choice for their next home (they’d prayed constantly that it would be God’s house, dedicated to prayer) it would be theirs.

Debbie had been in contact with the auction firm several months prior and introduced herself to the team just before the auction commenced. As the auction began, bids jumped quickly and went past their threshold. As bids slowed, Roger leaned forward and told Debbie to raise the bid by $5,000. Then, the auctioneer looked at her and said, “It’s Debbie, right?”

“Sold,” he said as she nodded her head.

That was 1999, and turning a former madam’s house into a house of prayer was not the last thing Debbie would do to bring light into dark places in Denver.

About 10 years later, having just finished building a mixed-use property and having to take over operating a booth rent salon in the commercial space, Debbie was on site often. She noticed something strange going on at the massage parlor located in the building next to theirs. Cars were coming and going … nice cars, with men frequenting the site often.

Something wasn’t right. She had a bad feeling about it and communicated her concerns to the police. Then, one night, her daughter, Eleanor – who lived in a condo above the salon – saw a taxi pull up next door. A young Asian woman got out with a suitcase and went into the building.

They called the police again. By that time, they had collected a list of more than 30 frequent visitors to the building, with vehicle descriptions and license plate numbers – “and descriptions of the men themselves when I could get them,” Debbie says.

It took a year or two to resolve, but a team of law enforcement authorities did eventually prove that the place was exactly what it looked – human trafficking via an illegal massage parlor – and they shut it down. 

When it all came together

Debbie is a busy woman – an entrepreneur, and a philanthropist. In addition to managing properties, she also manages a nonprofit that works with organizations primarily in East and Central Africa, where her older daughter, Olivia, served as a missionary.

She got connected with the National Christian Foundation Rocky Mountains office about nine months after they opened their office in Denver. Understanding just how important NCF is to helping charities with non-cash gifts and wanting to cheerlead the message, Debbie accepted the invitation to join NCF Rockies’ Generosity Council.

She’s also involved with Women Doing Well – an organization which helps women discover their purpose and passion so they can live better and give better. She was a city leader for one of their events in Denver. She loves helping women find their purpose, passion, and plan for living and giving. And she’s been happy to connect with other leaders and pioneers, women like her who wanted to accomplish something good, even if they are still working out how.

With a group of friends from Women Doing Well, she started thinking about a giving circle – a way for the women to pool their charitable giving to do something bigger than they could do individually. They started meeting and discussing ways to make this happen.

In September of 2018, while the ladies were still considering their plans, Debbie attended a meeting where some leaders from NCF’s national office came to talk to our Generosity Council. They shared about something that a group of givers were doing in Washington to help women escape sexual exploitation. They explained how NCF wants to steward the relationships they have by becoming a convener of groups like this. The group, SAFE in Washington, brought Christian and non-Christian nonprofits together, along with business and community leaders, and law enforcement organizations gathering around one table to more strategically fund efforts to fight human trafficking in their state.

“This is it,” Debbie thought when she heard about SAFE. “This is what we’re supposed to do!” She says she was so excited she was about to jump out of her skin.

“This is it. This is what we’re supposed to do!”

The next day, Debbie contacted me. “Let’s look at the SAFE in Washington model,” she said. As we did, it became clear that Denver had no resource center for victims coming out of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Debbie was going to find a way to change that.

Denver had no resource center for victims coming out of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Debbie was going to find a way to change that.

Denver had no resource center for victims coming out of human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Debbie was going to find a way to change that.

Teaming up

In early February 2019, Debbie took a trip to attend a Women Doing Well training seminar in Houston. On the Saturday night after the training, she attended a church service with a friend who introduced her as a guest from Denver. After the service, a woman approached her and said, “I’m coming to Denver soon.” As the two got to talking, the woman told Debbie that a church called Cherry Hills Community Church had just commissioned her to work with them on a project. This was the beginning of a fast friendship between Debbie and Allison Madrigal of Rescue America.

Allison explained that a sex-trafficked woman had shown up on Cherry Hills’ doorstep, not once, but twice. Their efforts to help her were temporary and pretty unsuccessful. They were frustrated, yet determined to be prepared in case something like that ever happened again. After searching the country for the type of ministry with services they felt would be best meet their needs, Cherry Hills called Rescue America because of the work that organization had done to identify gaps in the service continuum landscape that help sex-trafficked victims in the Greater Houston area.

Allison would be coming to help Cherry Hills do the same in Denver.

“This was a divine appointment,” Debbie told Allison. “I’ll be your boots on the ground. I will go back to Denver and put the first meeting together.” And she absolutely was. When she returned home, she shared about what had just happened with two friends. After a three-hour lunch, they were on board.

Another friend suggested she meet with a man named John DeYoung, who had been organizing conferences to increase awareness of the dangers of human trafficking and sexual exploitation for several years. But he knew awareness with no clear plan of how to help subsidize these organizations that were doing the hard work of recovery, rescue, and restoration of exploited victims wasn’t enough. “Debbie, I knew there was a missing piece, and this is it!”

In the next 60 days, with John’s help, the first meeting took place, involving business people, nonprofits, and local law enforcement. The goal was to introduce the SAFE collaborative model, the landscape assessment project of Rescue America, and find out who was interested.

They had no idea of the response they would get. “Everybody was so passionate,” she says. And they were all willing to help – even a local member of the FBI’s Innocence Lost task force joined them. He was listening to Allison describe her model for triage. “Oh my gosh,” he said. “We’ve got to have something like that here.” No service like Rescue America existed in Denver.

“It was one of those meetings you walk out of and say, ‘What just happened?’ God was all over it,” Debbie says.

He was listening to Allison describe her model for triage. “Oh my gosh,” he said. “We’ve got to have something like that here.”

At this stage, Debbie already had several members of her Executive Committee in place, and this meeting was the beginning of SAFE Rockies interviewing nonprofits and business leaders for the alliance. Rescue America was doing the same while assessing the local landscape of organizations on the service continuum, identifying the gaps and greatest needs, searching for those willing to partner in helping to restore trafficked victims.

In the following days, more than 15 local nonprofits, various law enforcement, and governmental agencies were vetted and interviewed. Business leaders were introduced to this unique and much-needed funding strategy. And with the addition of the critical voices of trafficked survivors speaking into needs on the service continuum, the process was well-informed. The gaps were becoming quite clear, and this would guide the Rescue America presentation of their findings in early June at a meeting with SAFE Rockies.

The summer was full of accepting applications for alliance partners and forming the SAFE Rockies advisory board, brand scripting, and producing a SAFE Rockies short film.

The first meeting of SAFE Rockies was off the charts! All of the alliance partners were thrilled to have a platform to come together, discuss their work, and share best practices and needs with each other.

What’s next?

At the first alliance meeting the Advisory Board determined that their Phase 1 would focus on rescue, emergency assessment, and short- and long-term housing areas. Three of the impact projects that were vetted were chosen to launch as their first funding efforts.

Rescue America met all the criteria. They continue to get national calls and are unique in the emergency assessment work they do and results they get. We chose them to establish a rescue hotline with 24-hour response to recover victims and to implement their 60-day emergency assessment program. This should significantly impact trafficking in Colorado, as it is one of the most lucrative markets for trafficking in the country.

When the Board asked Joanna Spille of Covered Colorado how many beds she could fill if she had them, she answered, “100 by the end of the week.” Covered had to turn away 50 victims last year alone because of lack of staffing to help with services and was paying more than $2,000 per month for each survivor they were housing in hotels. At that time, there were no designated beds for sex-trafficked survivors anywhere in the state of Colorado.

Open Door Ministries became our third impact project. They are building out a house called “Te Veo,” (“I see you” in Spanish) and will be partnering with Rescue America to offer short-term emergency housing for victims. Once construction on this project is funded and finished, we will implement programming and start designating beds in Denver.

In the spirit of collaboration, yet another alliance member came on board. Unbridled Acts offered us four beds in another home they have built to serve women in crisis. Their home will be designated as short-term housing. They are still looking for a host family with a heart to serve trafficked victims to live on the property.

A lot of ground covered in a very short time

SAFE Rockies has come together in a very short time. By God’s grace, the SAFE Rockies Giving Fund is in place through NCF. And those who are passionate about eradicating exploitation (yet are not sure where to give) can trust SAFE Rockies’ vetting of organizations and identification of funding gaps. Gifts are allocated exactly where they need to be until Phase 1 is complete.

“It is an honor to be here for such a time as this, to be launching SAFE Rockies and be at a place where we can dive in head-first to help these victims come out of trafficking situations and to bring them hope,” Debbie says.

Watch the video below, or visit S.A.F.E. Rockies to learn more.

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How much do you know about human trafficking (and what are you doing to help)?

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